With the release of their debut album, Princesses Nubiennes, in the United States in 1998, Les Nubians became the country's top-selling French-language musical group in over a decade. Consisting of sisters Helene and Celia Faussart, Les Nubians have been compared to such sultry British soul artists as Sade, Soul II Soul, and Des'ree, though their numerous nods to jazz, hip-hop, Afrobeat, and various other musical styles result in a mix that defies categorization. "Something like Sade fronting the Roots," offered the Denver Westword.
Les Nubians formed in a small town in Bourdeaux, France, where the Paris-born sisters lived as teenagers after returning from several years in the African country of Chad. The children of a French father and a Cameroonian mother, Helene and Celia did not find themselves subject to much cultural misunderstanding in Paris or Chad, but when they moved to a more rural environment, they began to encounter thoughtless questions about their heritage. Loneliness set in as well. "I was so disappointed and so lonely that I started singing more…, I started singing jazz," Celia told the Washington Post in 1999. Nineteen-year-old Helene was living on her own by then, and she sent her sister tapes of artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Natalie Cole, further fueling her interest in that musical form. After the death of the girls' father, Celia went to live with Helene and the duo began singing together.
In an effort to foster greater cross-cultural understanding and to further explore their music, Helene and Celia helped found a cultural collective, Les Nouveaux Griots, named after the term for an African storyteller and keeper of heritage. "The griot is someone who delivers the population its background, or they will give you your genealogy, or they will empower you with fictive tales, or they can be really realistic," Helene explained to the East Bay Express. The collective "sought to make people discover the African diaspora by the gastronomie, by the music, by the art, by the literature and spoken word. Les Nubians are an extension of Les Nouveaux Griots—a way of talking about our Afropean identity, the promotion of the European and the African cultures in a mixed society," Helene told the Washington Post.
Through the collective, Helene and Celia met famed jazz vocalist, actress, and political activist Abby Lincoln, who encouraged the pair to wholeheartedly pursue their singing, and Les Nubians became the sisters' full-time pursuit. Young and with no musical training, they found it exceedingly difficult to find instrumentalists who would take them seriously, so originally they sang a capella. "From the beginning when we decided to sing together, we wanted to sing with a band," Celia told the Post. "But no musicians trusted us. It was: 'You're too young…. You don't have any experience…. You didn't go to music school…. You don't know anything about music so we won't play with you!'"
Before long, though, they caught the ear of Virgin International records and inked a recording deal. Princesses Nubiennes was recorded with Lee Hamblin at Soul II Soul studios in England, and the album was initially released in France, Switzerland, and Belgium in June of 1998. The reception in these French-speaking countries was lukewarm, however. Recognizing the value of catchy beats and soulful melodies in any language, the Virgin subsidiary Omtown/Higher Octave picked up the album for release in the United States, where it met with a much more enthusiastic reception. With airplay first on college stations, then in commercial markets in New Orleans, Chicago, and Philadelphia, Les Nubians soon began to catch on nationwide. The video for their single "Makeda" received heavy rotation on Black Entertainment Television.
Eventually, Princesses Nubiennes became Billboard magazine's top-selling French-language album in over a decade. Tom Bracamontes, promotions director for Virgin/Higher Octave, summed up Les Nubians' appeal in America for the Post : "[T]here was nothing fresh happening in the urban marketplace, particularly on Urban Adult Contemporary stations, which are heavily skewed to a female listenership. And with Les Nubians, you had all the ingredients that would appeal to an African American female listenership—they sounded like a marriage between Sade and Erykah Badu, and it just happened to be in French, the most romantic language in the world." Celia reflected on the group's border-defying appeal in Denver Westword: "Language cannot really be a barrier in music. It's not the main purpose of music," she said. That they would sing in their native tongue was never a question, Helene told fellow world-beat singer Angelique Kidjo in Interview. "We like singing in English, but it was important for us to compose in French because it is the language we speak every day," she said. "It's crucial when you are doing your art to express yourself in your own language."
Their 2003 follow-up album, One Step Forward, exhibited even more varied influences and featured more English-language tracks. The sisters said they saw One Step Forward as a more focused work than their debut. "I will say that it goes a little further, in terms of production and just clearly in terms of style," the sisters told the website Africana. "The style is more pronounced than the previous." The decision to use English on the album came about naturally, they explained: "We practiced a lot of English in between the two albums and it became an effective language. We now have a lot of [English-speaking] friends and it came naturally."
For the Record . . .
Members include Celia Faussart (born in 1979 in Paris, France), vocals; Helene Faussart (born in 1975 in Paris, France), vocals.
Group formed, 1990s; released debut CD, Princesses Nubiennes, in French-speaking countries on Virgin International, 1998; released follow-up CD, One Step Forward, 2003.
Addresses: Record company— Higher Octave Music, 23852 Pacific Coast Hwy., Ste. 2C, Malibu, CA 90265. Website— Les Nubians Official Website: http://www.lesnubians.com.
With their bilingual approach and varied stylistic influences, Les Nubians have defied easy categorization. While this may confound music executives, radio programmers, and record store clerks, the sisters have said they wouldn't have it any other way. "I would put my music on every shelf. Even American, contemporary, pop, rock, folk, I'd put my CD anywhere!" the sisters told Africana. "We like it that way because we feel we do music, and putting yourself in a box is avoiding the possibility to get out of that box. We do that just so we feel free to do anything else in the future, we can explore and experiment. The only label that I'd like to put on my music is Afro-pean, because it really sums up the kind of influence that we have. Other than that, we just call it music."
Princesses Nubiennes, Virgin/Omtown, 1998.
One Step Forward, Omtown, 2003.
Denver Westword, October 21, 1999.
East Bay Express (San Francisco, CA), March 19, 2003.
Interview, November 2001.
Washington Post, October 13, 1999.
"The Africana QA: Les Nubians," Africana, http://www.africana.com/articles/qa/mu20030422nubian.asp (December 3, 2003).
"Les Nubians," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (December 2, 2003).
Les Nubians Official Website, http://www.lesnubians.com (December 3, 2003).
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